The Topeka Capital-Journal article “Kansas House bill could narrow private school tax credit program in coming years” provides a lengthy description of the program that was passed in 2014 and where it may be headed as forces within the Legislature fight to limit and ultimately eliminate the fledgling program. The article includes all the hot-button issues that school choice opponents like to push: vouchers, accreditation, separation of church and state, state revenues and funding for schools.
Kansas has a dearth of school choice options, unlike much of the rest of the country that is pushing forward with public charter schools, expanded tax credit programs, and most-recently dramatic expansions of Educational Spending Accounts. As I’ve written before, school choice in Kansas is little more than choosing between white and chocolate milk in the school lunch line. The tax credit scholarship program, one like is available in 16 other states is a modest, yet extremely important mechanism in which low-income students in poor performing schools have a way out. But the voices of opposition would have one believe the tax credit scholarship program is an existential threat, not only to public education but also the state’s ability to raise adequate revenues – code for tax increases.
It’s time to douse the hot-button with cold water by putting the tax credit scholarship program in perspective.
A tax credit scholarship is NOT a voucher.
No word in the education vernacular triggers more overreaction that the v-word. It has become much more than just a term; the mere utterance of the word induces such a Pavlovian response that the expression is used to evoke instant condemnation to virtually any type of education that is not in a traditional public school. Rep. Valdenia Winn (D- Kansas City) was quoted in the Capital-Journal article as saying the tax credit scholarship program is “a backdoor way to have vouchers.” Is she serious? At the current rate this state is moving toward school choice, we are closer to colonizing Mars than Kansas is to approving what the education community refers to as “vouchers.” A tax credit scholarship is not a voucher because no public money is involved.
The small scale of the program precludes it from being a threat to public schools.
According to the latest KSDE tax credit scholarship report to the Legislature, 188 students received scholarships for the 2016-17 school year. ONE HUNDRED EIGHTY-EIGHT. In the entire state. That’s exactly the same number of first graders at Valley Center. That’s fewer than the average number of students absent each day from a medium size school district. According to the KSDE 2016 fall headcount, there are 489,795 public school students in Kansas. That means students receiving a tax credit scholarship are equal to 1/26th of 1% of public school students. Not exactly an existential threat to public education as we know it.
The (perceived) impact on state revenues is barely discernible.
One thing that needs to be clear is that the tax credit scholarship program has had NO impact on state revenues, since the money was never the state’s to begin with. Adopting the attitude that the tax credit scholarship program takes money from the state means you think all money is inherently the government’s to take, so in effect the government allows us what money we can keep. So where does it end? As over the top as that sounds, that is exactly this issue the U.S. Supreme Court addressed in the Winn decision in 2011, upholding the constitutionality of Arizona’s tax credit scholarship program. Justice Kennedy nailed it when he rejected the plaintiffs’ argument by stating the idea that all “income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands (has) no basis in standing jurisprudence.”
That same KSDE report on the tax credit scholarship program specifies: “Since the beginning of the program (2015 and 2016) there has been $1,566,000 in total contributions received and
$1,096,200 in tax credits earned.” In those same years, the Governor’s Budget Report of 2017 (HYPERLINK) shows that general fund receipts were $12,100,100,000. That’s 1 million out of 12,100 million. The amount claimed by Kansas corporations allowable under the provisions of the program isn’t high enough to be considered a rounding error. If state revenues could be put on a petri dish you’d need a Titan microscope to distinguish the money that goes to the tax credit scholarship program.
Education interest groups have testified that the program takes much needed money away from the public schools. Again, that’s not true, but what fiscal impact would that extra million have on education funding over those two years? It amounts to about ONE DOLLAR per pupil, per year. Keep in mind Kansas spends north of $13,000 per pupil, per year.
Government accreditation of schools means nothing in the quality of education
Those opposed to the program love to point to accreditation as a reason for their disapproval – as in those taking advantage of the program may attend a school not accredited by the government. Representative Fred Patton (R-Topeka) was quoted as saying the tax credit scholarship schools “need to meet the same standards as our public schools.” That’s a pretty low threshold, given what that means in this state.
School accreditation in Kansas is not to be taken seriously. Here’s why. ALL of the roughly 1,400 public schools across the state are accredited. ALL schools – even those identified as the lowest performing. How can it be that chronically low-performing schools continue to be accredited? Because the method, known as QPA, was all about process, not performance. As Education Commissioner Randy Watson stated on the KSDE website, QPA was a “checklist of assurances….validated by the principal or superintendent.” I say “was” because KSDE has morphed acronyms into a new accreditation system called KESA. Surely, it’s because the old system was not effective in adequately accrediting schools, right? On the contrary, the new system will allow low-performing schools to hide because only districts will be accredited. There is much more detail on this topic here.
I wish the education establishment would show as much concern about the 35,000 students trapped in the chronically low-performing schools (the 99 identified as focus and priority schools under the old federal education law) than they do about the handful of students who may attend a non-government accredited school. Even more fundamental is the fact that parents should be the ones who “accredit” through choosing where to send their children to school.
It’s NOT about a separation of church and state
No anti-school choice argument would be complete without the obligatory false claim of a violation of separation of church and state caused by sending public money to religious schools. First of all, it’s not really an issue, it’s just another hot-button crutch term. Secondly, and even more important, is that the tax credit scholarship program does not send “government money” to private schools because as clarified above, the money to fund the scholarships never belonged to the government. Defenders of the status quo like to point to a tax credit scholarship approach as a way to skirt the purported Kansas constitutional ban on spending public money on religious schools. But how many know that such a ban, commonly known as a Blaine Amendment and exists in one form or another in 40 states, is rooted in religious bigotry? In 2000, the U.S Supreme Court confirmed the Blaine Amendments are indeed anti-Catholic, saying, “Consideration of the [Blaine] amendment arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general, and it was an open secret that ‘sectarian’ was code for ‘Catholic.'” Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments just this week on a neighboring Missouri case challenging the constitutionality of Blaine Amendments. Even the liberal Kansas City Star editorial board believes it’s time for Blaine Amendments to go.
It’s ironic that those in the education community who teach tolerance and acceptance of everyone are quick to lean on a law engrained in discrimination as justification to deny opportunities for others – others who are some of society’s most vulnerable and who could take advantage of educational opportunities afforded them through a school choice program like the tax credit scholarship program.
All of this notwithstanding, it is no surprise that the likes of Representatives Winn and Patton would be opposed to the tax credit scholarship program. Both have vested interests in the status quo of public education. Winn is a community college instructor and Patton is a public school board member in Topeka. As the old saying goes, the foxes want control of how the henhouse is designed. What is disappointing is that this article exposes the Capital-Journal as part of the education establishment. Why did they interview only two legislators who are clearly opposed to parental choice and typically line up to defend the status quo? Why not talk to those who may actually support the idea of school choice?
But most obviously missing in this piece is the importance of the program to the students who are benefitting from the tax credit scholarship program. That’s what the program is about, and what should be the centerpiece of any educational reform discussion. The program is about providing opportunities and making an impact on those low-income, at-risk students – kids who are typically 2-3 grade levels behind their higher income peers. After all, education is supposed to be about the students, not the institutions.